Canada in the Second World War


Unemployment, Drought and Locusts

Economically, the Great War resulted for Canadians in an era of precarious prosperity, which came to a sudden end in 1929 when the stock market crashed. At the time, the event was viewed as a brutal — but temporary — correction of the economic trend; things were expected to pick up soon, and on sounder bases. No one could imagine how deep-reaching was the crisis striking the industrialized world. The Great Depression lingered. It was to last almost ten years.

Before the crash, exports made up more than a third of Canada’s revenue. The United States, the main market for these exports, react to the economic meltdown with protectionist measures. European countries follow suite and move to support their producers, especially in the agricultural sector. In the Prairies, agricultural production had boomed during the Great War; but now, not only did European countries buy less, but Canadian producers has also to face competition from the USSR, which had resumed grain exports in 1928.

The contraction of foreign markets for grain, pulp and paper, minerals and manufactured goods deals a severe blow to the agricultural and industrial sectors. As incomes fall, jobs vanish. The price of grain plummets. A bushel of wheat that used to sell for $1.03 in 1928 is worth only $0,29 in 1932; there is no profit possible from cultivating the land. The decline in the purchasing power of Canadians impacts on domestic markets and contributes to the slowing down of the manufacturing sector. Unemployment rises steadily. In 1930, 390,000 workers are without a job, i.e., some 13% of the total workforce. In 1936, that figure reaches 26%. Between 1929 and 1933, the average annual income of Canadians drops from $471 to $247.

Both my father and mother were hard-working people and took their respective duties seriously: the family had food on the table, we had a roof over our heads and we were dressed warmly. Although we were poor, we were not among the poorest…
Jules Landry, Memories of My Father

The situation is even worse in the Prairies than in Central or Eastern Canada. Between 1929 and 1937, an unprecedented drought hits Wheatland. The top soil is dried up by the heat and blown away by the wind, piling up against fences and along roads. In 1937, locust swarms storm the crops, leaving only straw behind them. The Promised Land of Bounty is turning into a dust desert. That year, two thirds of Saskatchewan’s rural population is depending on public welfare for subsistence and 95% of municipalities are on the verge of bankruptcy.

I’ll tell you what that Depression was like. It was survival of the fittest and I read my Bible more now than I ever did and I never read of hard times like that, like we had in the middle of the Thirties. They was Dirty Thirties all right…
Barry Broadfoot, A Hot Sucking Wind

The government sets in place welfare and work camp programs to help the poor and the unemployed, but fails coming up with efficient measures for improving the economy. Unemployment and poverty lead to demonstrations, and conflicts between workers and employers are at times brutally quelled by the police. This climate of uncertainty and urgency favours the development of communism, which in turns breeds fear in parts of the population. The Communist Party of Tim Buck will take part in all the struggles of the workers and will be severely repressed. New political parties are born from that situation. The Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), under J.S. Woodworth, opposes Tim Buck’s marxist communist doctrine. The Social Credit of preacher William Aberhart is born in Western Canada and enjoys some success. None of these parties, however, succeeds in garnering sufficient electoral support and traditional political parties, the Conservatives and the Liberals retain power. With the October 1935 federal elections, the Conservatives of Prime Minister R.B. Bennett are defeated by the Liberal Party of W. L. Mackenzie King, who succeeds him as Head of the Government.

Strikers from unemployment relief camps enroute to Eastern Canada during “March to Ottawa”, Kamloops, B.C., June 1935. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Municipal Police brought the march to an end in Regina.

Strikers from unemployment relief camps enroute to Eastern Canada during “March to Ottawa”, Kamloops, B.C., June 1935. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Municipal Police brought the march to an end in Regina.
National Archives of Canada, C-029399.

The new government, tied up by fiscal orthodoxy and constitutional principles, has no immediate solution to the Great Depression in which the country is mired. In 1937, the economy plunges again and bankruptcy rates soar throughout Canada. Relying on the theories of British economist John Maynard Keynes, the King government progressively implements interventionist policies and subsidizes projects destined to boost the economy. But before these measure can even be put to the test, the government finds itself forced to increase dramatically its activities and investments: Canada is at War!

Canadian media are efficient: the press provides daily accounts, pictures and analyses of key events as they are unfolding in Europe. Radio, that more affluent people can afford, adds a new, immediate dimension to this information. During the capital years 1933-1939, Canadians watch anxiously as Nazi and fascist violence is unleashed. But this time their eagerness to defend democracy and fly to the assistance of allied nations is dampened by the poverty and uncertainty that plague their own country.

Une révolte impitoyablement écrasée. Une clique de chefs de troupes de choc, suivant les termes de Goering, a tenté en fin de semaine de renverser le gouvernement Hitler. Cette révolte a été noyée dans le sang et Hitler est complètement maître de la situation…
– La Presse, 2 July 1934.

Winnipeg citizens, like those in all parts of the world, listened to the tirade of Herr Hitler, Monday afternoon, wondering whether it was to be peace or war…
– Winnipeg Free Press, 28 September 1938.

Anxious, news-hungry crowds thronged six deep along the sidewalk beside the press room of The Globe and Mail last night, eagerly waiting for the presses to roll and pound out the news of Britain’s stand against aggression. Spirit of the crowd was one of complete orderliness combined with a tense waiting, only occasionally broken by a tight-lipped smile or joke…
– The Globe and Mail, 4 September 1939.